Gemma Purcell, Narrandera Argus
Western Riverina Arts Artist of the Month Leila Constable, of Narrandera, has been drawing, making, painting and creating literally all her life, fitting her art in and around the demands of family, work and the general business of life.
“Even as a tiny kid, I’d be somewhere with my pencils looking for the horizon line, adding in the trees, the sun. That was my go-to.” With six siblings in a busy household in semi-rural Telopea, Leila would opt for her art; and there was much to draw with a block full of vegetable gardens, a chook run, a dam and plenty of visiting wildlife.
As a child she was also fascinated with the craft of animators – the swift transitions, the facial expressions, the body movements, and the humour of studio cartoons like the Merry Melodies.
Life was busy, but not easy for the family.
“I grew up in a time when the welfare checks were constant and Dad, being a Wiradjuri man from Bathurst, was always on high alert protecting us from any chance of being taken from him and our mother. We had to hide who we were. I thought he was so tough in those days, but later as I learned that his siblings were taken away from the family, I really did come to understand his reasons and that he was protecting us,” said Leila.
Leila left school to take work in a nearby factory, but the pull toward art was too strong. A TAFE course in Showcard and Ticket Writing provided her with solid graphic design and planning skills and some formal training.
As a single working mother raising two little boys Leila found tiny pockets of time to go on with her art; producing banners, posters and bill boards for the local businesses in her neighbourhood.
“The commissions ebbed and flowed – everything from simple little note cards for the local florist to posters for the deli. The local supermarket would give me butcher’s paper and the weekend specials to draw up for them every week.”
On the passing of her father Leila was determined to learn more about the events of his life and her own Wiradjuri ancestry. With the support of Link Up she spent 15 years piecing together the family stories and history, bringing more and more of what she was learning into her art practice.
“I get an image, or an idea in my head and it will not leave me alone until it is a drawing, a painting or a mural.”
An unexpected side-trip to Portland was the catalyst that brought all the artistic and cultural pieces of Leila’s life together when she and her partner Wazza (Warren) found, purchased and completely renovated a worn out but still beautiful shopfront and residence in the town. She opened the Hunny Ant Gallery and Hoardin’ Pavilion on Willawa St Portland in early 2019.
During this time, she struck up a friendship with Ron Bidwell (Biddy) – a retired sign writer and self-confessed ‘blow-in’ from Sydney. Ron had a huge impact on the town by encouraging and working on the restoration of the signage and artwork of yesteryear throughout the town. Biddy also had a big impact on Leila as an emerging artist in her own right. “We’d walk together, he would call in and see me at the gallery; he was interested in my work and had an opinion on it. He’d say to me, ‘Just paint, Leila, just paint.’ He understood that force that artists have, that won’t leave them alone. I think I drew a lot of confidence from his support and words to just keep moving with my own art work, and not be discouraged. I started to really dig deeply into my Wiradjuri culture and bring it through into the artwork.”
Hunny Ant Gallery became a must-stop on the Lithgow Arts Trail with art and curios and increasingly Leila’s own work, more and more learning from the community, investigating and expressing her cultural heritage. Local commissions for wall work and huge murals also began to flow.
The business was busy and growing when the Covid-19 pandemic dealt its lethal blow; punching out the lights on bustling little country towns like Portland, and businesses like Leila’s that relied on the passing trade of locals and visitors. There was no option but to close shop. It was a huge blow after so much work.
Her new confidence in her art, her early fascination with animation, and her work in disability enabled Leila to accept a commission from the First People’s Disability Network of Queensland to develop an illustrated booklet about staying Covid safe.
Leila’s beautifully and sensitively illustrated booklet provided important, life-saving information through illustration, style, and language.
“I loved using all my skills to help keep people safe,” she said.
Work and happenstance brought the couple to Narrandera, where Leila now paints and draws in her light-filled studio – fulfilling commissions, dreaming and painting murals into life and bringing heritage and stories, both her own or collected into creation. Leila’s most recent works can be found at Hunny Ant Art.
This article appeared in the Narrandera Argus, 3 August 2023.